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If you see a construction worker on a building site, he or she most likely wears a hardhat. And football players wear enough padding to make them look anything but the ninety pounds of skin and bones they are trying to hide from us ;-)  

But writers. Writers don't need protective gear. Because what could possibly happen to us at our computer?

A recent study from Denmark said that nine percent of all full-time writers suffer from clinical depressions. This confirms what other studies have already shown. In case you don't know, depressions are periods of dark moods where you have trouble sleeping, lack of energy and desires, problems interacting with and contacting other people, and a very low self-esteem. These episodes can last anywhere from a few months to a lifetime, and the threats against the depressed range from general misery to suicide.  

You don't want to go there. I've been there (after my three-year-old daughter had her second round of chemotherapy – go figure) and no matter what you may have heard about suffering artists, I can assure you that depression doesn't do anything good for your art, or your family, or you.

Why writers need to take special measures

Of course, my story is somewhat extreme, so I'm hardly foretelling that all writers are heading for the Days of the Dark Dog. If you're a writer, however, you're facing obstacles that may divert you from the path of happiness.

1) You spend a lot of time holed up alone--and since humans are basically social creatures, being alone isn't particularly good for us.

2) You get a lot of rejections--that is, if you manage to convince yourself that your writing is good enough to send out to editors and agents in the first place.

3) You keep hearing about the success of other writers (newspapers love interviews with bestselling authors), but you don't hear about all the hard work they went through or the novels they threw away--not in proportion to the successful bits, anyway.

4) 'Success' defined as 'getting paid' could be a long way away for the beginning writer--and let's face it, a lot of people will see failure to earn money as just that: failure. A view that is all too easy to adopt yourself.

What to do about it?

Since the risk of depression is clearly present--much like the risk of getting hit by falling bricks on a construction site--the question remains: What kind of protective gear do you wear to keep depression at bay?

Aside from such obvious things as tinfoil hats, there are plenty of ways to go about preventing depressions.

Exercise. Running. Biking. Football. Parachuting. Getting your pulse up releases endorphins into your blood stream and removes cortisol from your brain. If you do yoga or stretch your whole body one limb at a time from head to toe, you'll feel your body and not just your fingers as they tap across the keyboard. You will connect with your entire body, not just your brain. More specifically, your mind will recognize that you are much more than the words you write. Benefits: A balance of neurochemistry and a boost to your confidence and self-esteem.

Get out more. My own weakest point. I'm a natural introvert, but I really get a lot out of seeing other people--it just tires me easily. One of the best things I've done in years is finding a local real-life writing group. And since books and stories are essentially about people, getting to meet people in real life will never be counterproductive.  

Train your brain. Mindfulness meditation has been studied for a long time and has been proven an effective tool against depression. Effectively you reprogram your brain to be more aware of the 'now', and with practice you can learn to accept and greet stressful and even painful experiences instead of letting get you down.

Your favorite non-writing hobby. Be yourself in more than just your writing way. I play the guitar a lot these days and have a blast.

I can hear the protests: "But writers are supposed to sit down and write!" Sure thing. But you'll write with a clearer mind after a run or a brisk walk. You'll probably find you're observing new things about the world when you've meditated for a while.And you'll most likely be a happier writer. Isn't that more important than words on paper?

My approach: Shrug off the pressure

In the end, it's up to you to set the course for a happy writing life. For me, the path so far has been to relieve myself of some of the pressure of 'conventional wisdom'.

If you follow the wisdom of the internet, writers are 'supposed' to do a lot of things. We must place our butt in the chair, write on the bus, and carry a notebook. We should read everything and then some, keep current on reviews and fiction trends and genre classics, learn grammar and spelling, study historical sources, know our horses and science and Hindu gods. Blogging is good for the aspiring writer because it helps build attention when your books come out. Twittering is even better. Mixing with people from the book industry is Gold Incarnate. Oh, and don't quit the day job either.

On the other hand, the wisdom of the web very rarely says: 'A writer should acknowledge that writing can be a tiring process that drains his energy.' 'A writer should know her limits and respect them.' 'A writer should take care of himself and make sure he has enough energy for his whole day, even if it means that he doesn't reach his daily goal.'

Without the latter advice to temper the first, writing ground me down more than I wanted to realize. When I found myself with a depression, I also found myself with limited mental resources at my disposal. And suddenly I had to choose between following a lot of writing advice that I couldn't live up to... or try to shrug off all the 'musts for writers'.

So I reminded myself that some people have more energy left over for writing than others. Stephen King and Harry Turtledove write books by the ton--but that didn't mean that was the way I should go about my writing. After all, when Truth comes to town, he wears a t-shirt that says 'All men are not created equal'. (Ok, sometimes it's 'I <3 NY'.)  

I slowly discovered that the best goal for me was not in setting a fixed number of words that I must write, but to simply to move the story forward. That sometimes happens in 400 word-all-day sessions, at other times in 2000 word-bursts. I'm learning to be glad for whatever progress I make. And I have come to accept that I won't be writing every day either.

Is that in gross violation of the axiom that writing is a serious business that you must undertake every day to even contemplate building a career? Yes! But if that axiom makes me depressed, I'll damn well stick it where the sun never shines. Nobody in the book business will care if I burn out. I, on the other hand, will care with my entire being, so I'll darn well go on doing things my own way.

What are you doing?

I realize that every person must take a unique approach to writing and happiness. I also know this can be a pretty hard topic to comment on, but I'm still very curious to hear how all of you write and keep your spirits up at the same time.

Therefore comments are welcome as always, but perhaps even more so with this post.

During dark dog days
Remember this ancient lore:
You have friends online

Interesting links:








( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 30th, 2010 10:31 am (UTC)
This is very good, and a lot to think about. I can relate to some of it, though I can't imagine going through all you've gone through with your daughter.

I have an odd problem with guilt and wonder if this is a form of depression...I'll talk about it here as if it is :).

I find that blogging really helps; it's social without strings and helps keep me balanced. Exercise, oh, gosh, yes, that's a great one, taking my doggy girls for a walk, paying attention to my husband or friends, well, pulling myself away from myself, if you will. I like to look closely at things in nature, maybe a form of mediation.
Nov. 30th, 2010 02:01 pm (UTC)
Guilt can be one of the symptoms of depression, but by itself it's probably just guilt. Giving nature a close look is definitely interesting--it always makes me feel like I'm part of something bigger (although nature can also be scary; storms and dark forests and fields of ice, oh my).
Nov. 30th, 2010 11:27 am (UTC)
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Paulo Bacigalupi (of Windup Girl fame) at a book signing out in Ohio. He's won just about every award in the scifi/fan world (for Windup Girl) at this point. He's an "instant smash success"--except he isn't. He told us about the four books he wrote, the countless short stories. Rejection, rejection, rejection. As all the others in his writing group went on to publish with big houses, he was still being rejected.

No one is an instant smash. This is a VERY motivational thing to know.

At the moment, I've not had to work to keep my writing spirits up. You know, I think when you've lived through the worst hell you can imagine (like you with your daughter) and come out the other side, adversity takes on a whole new face. It's just not as scary anymore. For me, anyway.
Nov. 30th, 2010 01:53 pm (UTC)
When I read the Windup Girl, I had a distinct feeling that Paulo Bacigalupi had been writing for a very long time :-)

I'm so glad you have the attitude to writing and life that states that adversity will make you stronger. I've seen people grow sour--or permanently depressed--from what you've been through, so getting up again isn't a given. It's quite admirable.
Nov. 30th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
Here's my philosophy on adversity--either you are a survivor of it, or a victim of it. It's your choice.
Nov. 30th, 2010 12:36 pm (UTC)
I may not put on a hardhat, but I have been known to put on my Internet Review of Science Fiction hat to write. (grin)

Sales tend to clump and plateau. As for rejections, consider that many are scattershot -- I haven't sent story #55 to market G yet, so even though they may not like it, send it anyway -- and e-subs don't really cost anything to "mail", so it's a lot easier to send a lot of low probability subs.

On the other hand, I've sold two military SF stories to two markets that don't like a lot of military SF. Moral of the story -- if you don't send it, the probability of success is a hard zero. Period.

Otherwise, what you said.

Dr. Phil
Nov. 30th, 2010 02:05 pm (UTC)
Rejections don't worry me nearly as much as they used to. After 240 (and counting), they're just another entry on the list I use to keep track of stories. Moreover, I've stopped putting too much stock in the opinions of others--I still love to sell stories, of course, but I've discovered I love writing stories even without the sales. That counts for much of my satisfaction with my current writing life.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 1st, 2010 06:22 am (UTC)
You watch those knees! (Which reminds me I should probably add myopia to the list of occupational hazards of computers and reading.)

I'm glad you're not being followed around by the Black Dog, but then again, it sounds as if you know how to work in the way that suits you.

Discussing writing problems always make them all that easier to attack (I do that with my writing group as well). They always have a good suggestion to solve the problem, or twist the story, or tweak the way a character does something... And, just as important, I've never heard anyone say, "I don't care about your writing problem," to my face or on the web. People really want to help with these things.
Nov. 30th, 2010 11:06 pm (UTC)
A brave post :)
Dec. 1st, 2010 06:06 am (UTC)
Thanks :-) Depressions are taboo, but ironically one of the things depressed people really need to do is talk about it. So I thought I'd do my bit to lift the shroud of mystery. For some that's literally a matter of life and death.
Dec. 2nd, 2010 07:26 am (UTC)
I agree with you 100%. Unless you are a writer with a hard deadline staring you in the face, get away from that keyboard, typewriter (is anyone still using one of those?), notebook, or portable dictation device and smell the roses.
Dec. 4th, 2010 05:05 am (UTC)
Well, deadlines are deadlines, and we all have to deal with those. But ideally the deadlines can be arranged with time to spare for life-giving activities :-)
Dec. 5th, 2010 09:11 am (UTC)
Ideally, yes. But I've been backed into a corner three times already, where it was place butt on chair and write or else, and I'm far from being a pro. Of course, those are quickly over and one can go back to relaxing after, but they do add a spice of anxiety to your life while they last, and who knows the lasting effects?
Dec. 3rd, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
Here via jongibbs. Excellent post.

I keep my spirits up by having other interests too, definitely, and by having people I can count on to read and enjoy my work even if I can't get it published.
Dec. 4th, 2010 04:54 am (UTC)
Hi, thanks for dropping by :-) I totally agree that sharing your work with trusted readers is a good way to avoid 'going it alone'. I was a member of Critters.org for a long time and had good critiques there, but I always liked it better when someone I know would read and comment on my stories.
Dec. 3rd, 2010 04:39 pm (UTC)
Meant to comment a few days ago, but I've been dealing with a minor black cloud (*Very* minor, compared to yours!) and am finding my own way back. Again, it can be heartening to hear others that struggle with the black doldrums. Although I don't consider myself struggling with them too much anymore. Like you, I've realized that exercise--even though I hate it with a passion--really is my best friend.
Dec. 4th, 2010 05:03 am (UTC)
Hi Pam, I just saw your post, and I sure understand how you can feel down. The important thing to remember with bleak moods is that you CAN get back in the groove. (.. and if the internet goes on without you as you recover, then so be it.)
Dec. 4th, 2010 10:29 am (UTC)
I came to this post care of a link jongibbs posted, and just wanted to say thanks - there's so much wise and wonderful advice here.
Dec. 4th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks for dropping by. As you can probably tell, it's a subject that has been on my mind for a while, and one I finally found the way to express. I'm glad it came out in a coherent form, and even happier that you can extract some wisdom from it :-)
Dec. 4th, 2010 11:52 pm (UTC)
Good advice
Thanks for the advice here and it extends beyond the writing profession. Depression is very real and serious. I found that exercise was very necessary when I was job searching.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


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